The man who walked around his soul
The interior and exterior lives of Phillip Lopate
By Todd Leopold
(CNN) -- Phillip Lopate is the storyteller you sit next to on the bus or the plane, the person with whom you're casually drawn into conversation and the next thing you know three hours have passed and it's time to part.
Or he is the amusingly contentious guy in the movie line, and you start out ignoring him but by the time the movie's ready to begin you're chatting amiably and making plans to meet up again. (Though, maybe, you never do.)
His is the voice you listen to.
He didn't know he was going to be that voice, the voice that animates his collection of personal essays, "Getting Personal" (Basic Books) or his walk around Manhattan Island, "Waterfront" (Crown). Indeed, he wasn't even aware of the personal essay -- the opinionated, thoughtful form he's made his own -- when he started writing in his teens and twenties.
"There was no [preconceived] thought, 'I want to be a personal essayist,' " he says in an interview from his home in Brooklyn, New York. "I didn't like the ones in lit class. I had to stumble on [the form] on my own."
But it was a voice he knew he enjoyed, even before it became him.
"I've always been fascinated with the sound of a confiding voice, in the fiction of Doestoyevsky or Gide or in poetry, such as Browning's monologues. It's the sound of a human voice trying to get to the truth, working through rationalizations," he says. "All that fascinates me."
Both "Getting Personal" and "Waterfront" show off Lopate -- and the personal essay -- to good effect.
"Getting Personal" is a broad collection spanning the author's life, an autobiography of sorts. One essay discusses the impact of his mother's affair on Lopate's family, viewed through both his young eyes and his more knowledgeable, and empathetic, adult self. Another describes the impact of a teacher's suicide.
In between, there is a remembrance of a favorite movie, a critical appraisal of Holocaust memorials and other distinctive judgments, filtered through Lopate's occasionally contrarian -- but always engaging -- worldview.
If "Getting Personal" often seems reflective of Lopate's interior life, "Waterfront" is the author in a more expansive mood, befitting the brimming island he chronicles.
He starts at the Battery, at Manhattan's southern tip, and walks up the west side, along the city's distinctive neighborhoods all the way to the top of the island; then, at the midway point, he returns to the Battery and strolls up the eastern shore. (The journey was actually done in pieces over the course of four years.)
But even "Waterfront" is as reflective as it is ebullient. Indeed, Manhattan -- an island that turns inward, with stacked, yearning skyscrapers in its center and a relatively empty, neglected seashore -- has something in common with the introspective, Brooklyn-born Lopate, 61, a New Yorker to his soul. He meditates on history, ponders sea life, ruminates on the land-water divide, and marvels at public housing, great bridges and giant electrical plants.
That's the way it usually is, he says: Each essay is a trip into his interior.
"Every time I start, I never know which way it's going to go," he says. "I can follow the thought. It's different than a short story. ... I have to rediscover what the form is [each time]."
'Friends with their minds'
Perhaps the most striking chapters in "Getting Personal" have to do with Lopate teaching others how to express themselves. The author was a teacher, mainly of children under 12, in New York's schools for several years.
"I wanted them to become friends with their minds," he says. "Anything to allow them not to be spooked by what they think."
Lopate had them write various forms and, though encouraging of his charges, writes bluntly of the experience: "How to give recognition and support for that line or that word without fawning over every child's piece ... is a discipline we need to begin to learn."
He took risks, too. In a long chapter in "Getting Personal," he describes putting on Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya" with a fifth-grade class. Amazingly, everything -- the children's understanding of the characters, their acting skills, their reading capacities -- came together with the performance.
Lopate marvels at children's abilities.
"It was wonderful working with kids. They were so unpredictable from moment to moment. ... There's something quicksilver about kids."
(Incidentally, Lopate -- who once titled a book of essays "Bachelorhood" -- now has a child of his own.)
For years, Lopate has lived in that literary territory home to what the publishing world called "the midlist writer" -- respected, decent-selling, but not in a class with the Stephen Kings and John Grishams -- or the John Updikes and Philip Roths. However, his profile has risen of late, thanks to his identification with the personal essay. He's the editor of the anthology "The Art of the Personal Essay," which has been adapted by universities across the country.
"Waterfront" may take him further. At least, he hopes so.
"I hope it takes me beyond the midlists ... maybe to the upper-middle-midlist," he jokes.
Regardless, he won't stop probing. And though walking through New York was enthralling and edifying, he can travel just as well from his desk.
In fact, Lopate says, that might be preferable.
"An editor once said of me," Lopate recalls, " 'Lopate's idea of a good assignment is never having to leave home.' "